The Ashburnham Pentateuch and its Contexts

The Trinity in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages


Dr Awes Freeman, thank you for joining us! Can you please tell us about your studies to date and what first drew you to medieval studies?

Thank you for having me! My academic training, research, and publication has largely focused on the dynamic and layered meanings of religious images in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Relatedly, I’m also interested in the relationship between image and text—both visually, say, on the page of an illustrated manuscript, and also conceptually. 

Initially my interest in medieval art was purely visual—I was inspired by medieval and Byzantine art in my own work as a painter. I was drawn to monstrous creatures in the margins of manuscripts, quirky depictions of the divine, and cryptic attributes of saints. I owned several books on these periods but was interested in them only for the formal qualities of their images. It embarrasses me to say now that in those days (immediately post-university) I never actually read the text of the books! But some seed had been planted: in the first year of my graduate program at Yale, I enrolled in multiple medieval courses, and I suppose we could say the rest is history…

It seems best to start our discussion with the obvious, what is the Ashburnham Pentateuch? Is anything known of its origins? Where is it held now?

The Ashburnham Pentateuch is an early medieval illustrated manuscript of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Pentateuch). It is a Christian copy of this biblical text, as evidenced by its Latin translation and the Christian iconography found in some of its images. The date and origin of the manuscript are debated, but there is general scholarly consensus that it dates to the second half of the sixth century and was produced in the Mediterranean world—likely Italy. What we do know is that by the end of the eighth century it came to the monastery at Tours. 

In the eleventh century it was used as a model for frescoes in the abbey church at St. Julien at Tours. It remained in France, eventually in the collection of the municipal library at Tours, until it was stolen by Guglielmo Libri in 1842 and later sold, along with thousands of other manuscripts, to the fourth Earl of Ashburnham. The manuscript was not returned to France until 1888 and has been held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) in Paris ever since. Despite its probable Italian origins, the manuscript’s two common names—the Ashburnham Pentateuch and the Pentateuque de Tours—retain instead the history of its theft and sale.

The manuscript is clearly not in its original state, is it? How has it been altered and are these alterations extensive?

Like many early medieval manuscripts, the Ashburnham Pentateuch has had a long and storied life, which is discernible in several changes to its text, images, and binding. These changes range in date and severity. For example, there are marginal notations throughout the manuscript, often marking liturgical contexts, indicating that during at least one point, the manuscript was used in a worship context. Twelve pages of text were restored in the eighth century, and another page was restored in the ninth century. At some unknown point, several of its original pages were excised from the manuscript, such that the end of the book of Numbers is missing, as is the entirety of Deuteronomy.

When Libri stole the Ashburnham Pentateuch, he made several modifications to the manuscript to obscure its origins. He is likely the one who erased the inscription “sancti Gatiani” on one folio and added an inscription associating the manuscript with the monastery of Grotta Ferrata. He also had the edges of the pages trimmed and had it rebound with a pseudo-antique binding covered in cedar boards with inlaid crossbars (not unlike the supports for Byzantine icons).

The manuscript also suffered water damage at some point in its life, which is visible in the top margins along some of its images. In fact, it was the water damage that seems to have led Bezalel Narkiss to discover the other major change to the Ashburnham Pentateuch, which is the subject of my book. The first image of the manuscript is a depiction of the first few days of creation, as described in the book of Genesis. It’s very “blobby”—with amorphous fields of colour signifying light and dark, land and sea, and so on. In its present state, there are four figures posed around the page. If you look closely (or zoom in on the BnF’s digital image) you can make out some of the original Latin inscriptions, which explain things like “Here is where the Lord separated the waters.” It had been previously observed and assumed that the figure in the top left of the page was holding something, perhaps an orb, in his outstretched hand. When Bezalel Narkiss studied the image under ultraviolet light in the 1960s, he discovered that the object was in fact the halo of a second figure, which in turn led him to realize that a total of five figures had been carefully covered up by paint.

Narkiss concluded that in its original state, the creation image had depicted four Father-Son pairs and one instance of the Holy Spirit, as a winged man, hovering over the waters in the centre of the folio. (The Father-Son pair is reversed in direction and order in the bottom right of the image.) The redactor of the image consistently painted over the righthand figure in the Father-Son pairs, which means that three Fathers and one Son remain! Based on the colour and quality of the paint used to make these changes, Narkiss suggested that they were executed in the early ninth century, when the manuscript was at Tours.

And the changes are significant, especially with regard to imagery of the Trinity, aren’t they? 

Indeed! While we can probably ascribe the inconsistency in the removed figures to a mistake by the redactor, the fact that they removed the Son and not the Father is puzzling. On account of the incarnation (in which God became human, or “en-fleshed”), the Son is in a sense the most imageable of the three persons of the Trinity. In my effort to understand both the production and redaction of this particular image, I look at contemporary images of the Trinity and of the creation narrative. There are some instances of anthropomorphic images of the Trinity in the fourth century (that is contemporary to early Christian debates about the nature and relationship of the persons of the Trinity). However, the Ashburnham Pentateuch’s anthropomorphic image is something of a blip, with the next example not appearing for several centuries. And indeed, its relative uniqueness may very well have been part of the reason it was redacted in the early ninth century. There’s a lot to unpack there, but one overall takeaway is that depictions of the Trinity vary—and reflect the theological concerns and questions of a given period. 

In that sense then, is the Ashburnham Pentateuch as it is now generally representative of widespread theological and artistic beliefs in the early Middle Ages? Did it escape further changes in later centuries?

I think of the Ashburnham Pentateuch as a kind of hinge between Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Some early Christian anthropomorphic images of the Trinity visualize the teaching that the three persons were consubstantial and coequal. The Ashburnham Pentateuch’s original Trinity image was consistent with earlier images in that it was anthropomorphic, though its composition was unique from those found on sarcophagi. It was also the last (extant) anthropomorphic Trinity for several centuries. While the orthodox Christian teaching on the relationship between the persons of the Trinity did not change (at least, as articulated in the Nicene Creed), by the time the Ashburnham Pentateuch came to France in the early Middle Ages the Christian church was faced with new theological questions and cultural influences. These included the western response to the Byzantine iconoclastic controversy, debates regarding adoptionist theology in Muslim-ruled Spain, and the so-called Carolingian renaissance, all of which (and more) worked in concert to drive a concern for theological orthodoxy and consistency, at least in part as an expression of the divinely appointed authority of the Carolingians.

To answer your question in brief: as a manuscript that travelled, was redacted, and used as a model for a set of eleventh-century frescoes, the Ashburnham Pentateuch is very much a product of its times (plural in the sense of its sixth-century production, ninth-century modification, and multiple subsequent afterlives). 

 Beyond those mentioned above, I don’t know of further changes to the manuscript. It’s entirely possible that there were other medieval or modern changes that have yet to be discovered! 

The blurb for your book mentions the “Byzantine iconoclastic controversy.” We hate to miss a controversy: what happened?!

It is a fascinating controversy! At the core was a concern with what sacred images are capable of doing. For instance, is it possible to depict the divine nature of Jesus in a painted portrait? The controversy was primarily a theological one. The critique of images was based not only in the Second Commandment prohibition, but also in a belief that spirit was superior to matter, and the assumption that a true image must share nature with what it represents (and so in that sense, the eucharist is the only true image of Jesus)—to name but a few points. On the other hand, the pro-image position appealed to the centuries-long tradition of Christian art, as well as biblical examples of God instructing the creation of images (e.g., the Ark of the Covenant). But most importantly, this position asserted 1) that the very word “image” (or eikon in Greek) implies an essential difference between an image and its prototype—an image bears a resemblance to its prototype but does not share in its nature. It points beyond itself. And 2) because of the reality of the Incarnation, it is not simply permissible for Christians to make images, it is necessary. They argued that the incarnation demands the creation of images of Jesus; to deny images of Jesus is to deny the incarnation (that is, the imageability of Jesus) and therefore is a heretical position. Likewise, to deny images of the saints is to deny deification (God’s grace on humans).

Because the pro-image image side “won” (via the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 CE and the Triumph of Orthodoxy in 843), we don’t have much in the way of documents preserving the so-called iconoclastic side. I say so-called because some scholars—notably Leslie Brubaker in her Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm—have called into question whether and to what degree images were actually destroyed during this period.

And finally, what has your experience been of online conferences over the last two years? The hybrid model (online and in-person) seems likely to spread, at least in the short-term. What are your thoughts on conference formats these days? Will you be attending them in-person again this year?

In the first two years of the pandemic, I attended and presented at a few online conferences and workshops and had a largely good experience. That said, my preference is still very much to attend conferences in person, which I began to do again at the end of 2021. I’m one of those extroverted academics: I love meeting new people. I have always found the most generative spaces of conferences to be the in-between moments—walking to the next session with a new acquaintance, reconnecting with mentors, classmates, or colleagues over coffee. In fact, the proposal for this book came out of a conversation in a pub at the medieval conference at Kalamazoo!

But all that said, going forward, I do hope that hybrid options are retained at conferences that can manage the logistics, as I believe it is more accessible and equitable. A virtual option makes attending more affordable to graduate students and contingent faculty, and often more practical for those with young children, with elders to care for, or with other responsibilities. Though as someone with three children, I would also argue that traveling for conferences allows me to engage more comprehensively in a conference. When I attend a conference virtually, it often means that I am still bound to my regular professional and personal responsibilities and therefore can only participate in one or two sessions.

I’m planning to attend a Julian of Norwich conference in person at Oxford this summer and am very much looking forward to it!

The Ashburnham Pentateuch and its Contexts

Jennifer Awes Freeman

8 colour & 39 b/w illus.; 244pp
£75/$99, 9781783276844
March 2022
Boydell Studies in Medieval Art & Architecture
Boydell Press



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JENNIFER AWES FREEMAN is Assistant Professor and Program Director of Theology and the Arts at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.

Images: Creation, Ashburnham Pentateuch, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS NAL 2334, fol. 1v (Source / BnF)